Sunday, April 3, 2011

Latinate and Anglo-Saxon Words

In the last post I mentioned the idea of using big words in poetry and how they often have the very opposite effect of the intended result.

When I was an English teacher one of my favorite things to teach was the history of the English language - how it grew and changed over the years as old "Angle Land" was invaded and/or controlled by Germanic tribes, the Roman Empire, and invaders from Normandy among others. Not to mention the words that were added to the American English vocabulary as it moved across the ocean and mixed with languages of the Native Americans and immigrants from all over the world.

In poetry we often classify words as "Latin" or "Anglo-Saxon" 

For the most part - in the history of English - the Latin/Romance words were the words of the ruling and wealthy class - - the government, royalty, the leaders of the church. By contrast - the Anglo-Saxon, or Germanic, words were the words of the poor and the lower class - the everyday farmers and tradesmen and people who lived in the country.

The fact that both of these language influences were part of the history of English has left us with many synonyms in contemporary English - one word Germanic in its root, the other Romantic.  (And by Romantic I  mean the languages derived from Rome  - Latin, French, etc) By nature - the Germanic words tend to be short, bold, with a hard sound. The Latinate words tend to be multi-syllabic with a "pretty" sound.

And while there is much beauty to poems written in the Latinate style - it is the poems full of Germanic words that I find appealing. They often feel raw, honest, to the point.

A few examples of these types of words:

Anger/wrath = rage/ire
Bodily = corporal
Brotherly = fraternal
Leave = exit/depart
Thinking = pensive
Dog = canine
Come = arrive
Ask = inquire 

For the sake of poetry and the "raw, honest, to the point" feel - the words don't actually have to be Anglo-Saxon in origin - but we're going for that idea of the shorter, harsher, words rather than the flowy pretty ones. And, obviously - not every word will be short and harsh - but in general, that's the feel you get.

Here are a couple of poems I love by Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) that I think have a lot of good usage of Germanic-sounding words.

Root Cellar
Theodore Roethke
Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!--
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.

A poem about rotting food and plants in a dark cellar would just not work with Latinate words. 

 and I'm pretty sure everyone read this in at least one English class during school

My Papa's Waltz
Theodore Roethke

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Even though waltzes are short steps they are supposed to be elegant - you'd expect flowy words in a poem about a waltz. But - not in this poem, not this waltz.

I'll try to stop my geeky ramblings soon and just post some great poems :)


  1. I like both of these, which is pretty cool since I'm not a huge poetry fan.

    I don't think we read the second one in school, not familiar at all.

  2. Yay! someone commented on a poetry post. haha.

    Now that I think about it...I read Papa's Waltz first in college - - but then when I became a teacher it was standard in the Lit books - - so maybe it was a standard inclusion after our high school years.